Investing in youth to rebuild our future

The good news is that Congress has a chance to do something about this unacceptably high level of youth unemployment decimating under-resourced communities that already were struggling before the recession.

To his credit, President Obama has presented a 2011 budget with increases in funding for effective programs to connect these vulnerable young people to education and jobs, to a supportive community and to opportunities to serve their communities — to essentially offer them a second chance at putting their lives back on track. These programs are needed now more than ever.

One of those programs is YouthBuild, which is administered by the U.S. Department of Labor. In 273 YouthBuild programs across the country, nearly 10,000 low-income young adults, ages 16 to 24, are working toward their GEDs or high school diplomas while learning job skills by building affordable housing for homeless and poor people.

Since 1994, when YouthBuild programs first began receiving federal funding, nearly 100,000 YouthBuild students have produced 20,000 units of affordable housing across the country. YouthBuild emphasizes leadership development and creates a positive peer group that can compete with the lure of the streets while developing new young leaders who have transcended poverty in America’s poorest communities.

YouthBuild is a program proven to work. And yet, every year, YouthBuild programs around the country have to turn away a total of more than 14,000 young people who want to turn their lives around because there isn’t the funding to provide enough slots for all of them. The same scenario exists at other effective programs such as Service and Conservation Corps and ChalleNGE programs that help young people get back on track toward positive, productive futures. And now AmeriCorps is deliberately engaging low-income young people in service to their communities, increasing its role in solving this problem.

A House Appropriations panel recently marked up a bill containing President Obama’s request for employment and training programs administered by the Labor Department.

It supported the president’s request for $120 million for YouthBuild. The Senate Appropriations Committee also recently marked up the bill and included $110 million for YouthBuild. Program directors and students across the country are profoundly grateful for this support from both the House and the Senate committees, led by Representatives Obey and Tiahrt, and Senators Harkin and Cochran. We are grateful to Rep. John Lewis for his leadership and to Senators John Kerry and Olympia Snowe, who recruited 33 senators to support the president’s request of $120 million for YouthBuild.

Congress is to be commended for its support of effective employment training programs over the years. Such support is more important than ever as investments in employment training, education, and service programs will enable more low-income young adults to achieve their potential, contribute to our nation’s economic growth and give back to their communities with energy and passion. The alternative to supporting their development is to allow them to become dependent or powerless, or even locked up, a drain on the economy, at enormous cost to State and Federal governments.

To be sure, Congress faces very tough decisions on national funding priorities as members try to impose discipline on spending, increase revenues, and reduce the deficit.

But I urge Congress to continue investing even more generously in effective programs because the long-term payoff is enormous. Studies have shown that the value of lost productivity for a high school dropout is estimated to be $390,000 to $580,000 over a lifetime. This value can be recovered with a relatively small investment.

I hope Congress seizes the opportunity to address part of our nation’s shameful dropout epidemic by investing in effective employment training, education and national service programs that give the young people who have fallen off track a chance to rebuild a productive, responsible, contributing future.

Dorothy Stoneman is president and founder of YouthBuild USA.

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